Storefront Coyotes

Meet the con artists who “help” immigrants with their visa problems—and who will get rich if Congress passes a “tough” immigration reform bill.

For more than a decade, Loma International Business Group, Inc., operated out of the seventh floor of the elegant stone building in downtown Baltimore known as “Baltimore’s First Skyscraper.” Loma’s owners, Manuel and Lola Alban, seemed to fit in well with the lawyers, accountants, and government officials who also had offices in the building. Manuel Alban advertised himself as an attorney, and the couple purported to offer legal services to immigrants, particularly from Honduras and El Salvador, who were looking for help in dealing with their immigration status. Over the course of a decade, the Albans filed immigration paperwork for more than 600 clients, charging each hundreds of dollars for their work.

In June 2011, a federal judge shut down Loma for deceptive practices. According to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Manuel Alban was not an attorney, nor were the Albans authorized to provide immigration services, as they claimed. Moreover, more than half of the immigration applications they filed were rejected or denied, often because they filed the wrong form or failed to pay a fee. Collectively, the Albans bilked their clients of tens of thousands of dollars.

The Albans succeeded by using word-of-mouth advertising and preying on their clients’ vulnerability. “Since most consumers have limited English skills,” said the FTC’s complaint, “they place their trust in the Albans to select, prepare, and file the necessary English language immigration forms.”

They also succeeded by exploiting the Byzantine complexity of the immigration system, which is too intimidating for most laypeople to navigate on their own. Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls immigration law “second only to the tax code for complexity.” She says her group “strongly advises against” clients applying for an immigration benefit on their own, because the stakes for immigrants are so high. Says immigration lawyer Rachel Van Wormer, “You put the wrong things on your form, and you could be deportable.”

Talk of immigration reform is moving closer to reality, and the legislation that emerges from Congress will determine whether the treacherous path that immigrants already face becomes more dangerous still. While politicians jockey to craft a “tough” bill that piles on hurdles and paperwork for immigrants, unscrupulous entrepreneurs like the Albans are likely salivating over the opportunities.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…